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Fission Stories #130: Fukushima’s Dividends or Mea Culpas

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On March 11, 2011, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale off the coast of Japan spawned a large tsunami wave that overtopped the protective seawall at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The flood waters disabled emergency equipment. The three reactors operating at the time of the earthquake experienced extensive damage due to overheating.

Tsunami waters flooding the Fukushima Daiichi site. The gray rectangular structure with the horizontal band in the left background is one of the turbine buildings. In the upper right, the Pacific Ocean is shown overtopping the protective seawall. The cylindrical tubes are part of the ventilation system. Just below the center of the picture is a white SUV stood on its nose by the flood water. (Source: TEPCO)

In March 2012, the NRC ordered owners of operating nuclear reactors to walk down their facilities for earthquake and flooding vulnerabilities. Those efforts have already reaped dividends. For example:

Our Takeaway

For decades, these design deficiencies left these reactors more vulnerable to floods than necessary. The Fukushima disaster prompted reactions in the United States that found and fix these longstanding impairments. That’s good.

But what if these reactors had experienced the flood prior to March 2011 that it was supposed to be protected against, but was not? Perhaps workers in Japan would have walked down their plants for lessons from the Vermont Yankee, Millstone, or second Three Mile Island disaster.

Why weren’t these design problems found in the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, or 1970s?

Lots of people spent lots of time allegedly looking for them.

For example, the NRC has inspection procedure 71111.06 titled “Flood Protection Measures” that requires two plant areas to be examined each year. The procedure explicitly guides NRC inspectors to give priority to “Sealing of equipment below the floodline, such as electrical conduits” in “areas that can be affected by internal flooding, including water intake facilities.”

And NRC inspection procedure 71111.01 titled “Adverse Weather Protection” has a section specifically chartered to “Evaluate Readiness to Cope with External Flooding” directing NRC inspectors to “select plant areas containment risk significant structures, systems, and components (SSCs) which are below flood levels or otherwise susceptible to flooding.”

Again, why didn’t these or other NRC inspections find at least some of these design problems in the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, or 1970s? It’s not a case of one NRC inspector having a bad week – it’s a case of a regulatory agency having four bad decades.

The NRC should review its inspection efforts in light of all these reports and make changes necessary to improve their effectiveness.

And the NRC could take a complementary approach.

The NRC issues operating licenses to plant owners allowing them to operate their facilities within terms and conditions established by those licenses. The plant owners, not the NRC, have primary responsibility under the law to abide by those terms and conditions. Thus, plant workers rather than NRC inspectors are expected under the law to find and fix design deficiencies.

The mea culpas listed above clearly represent failures by plant owners to fulfill their obligations under the law. The NRC has the authority to fine owners for violating federal safety regulations. The NRC should take its federal safety regulations seriously by sanctioning owners who have violated them for decades.

When owners scoff at federal safety regulations, the American public expects the NRC to do more than join in the scoff chorus.

 

“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.

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About the author: Mr. Lochbaum received a BS in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Tennessee in 1979 and worked as a nuclear engineer in nuclear power plants for 17 years. In 1992, he and a colleague identified a safety problem in a plant where they were working. When their concerns were ignored by the plant manager, the utility, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), they took the issue to Congress. The problem was eventually corrected at the original plant and at plants across the country. Lochbaum joined UCS in 1996 to work on nuclear power safety. He spent a year in 2009-10 working at the NRC Training Center in Tennessee. Areas of expertise: Nuclear power safety, nuclear technology and plant design, regulatory oversight, plant license renewal and decommissioning

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  • Richard Solomon, PhD

    Thanks for pointing out 3 instances where plants and the NRC both failed to do adequate safety follow up for decades. It is reassuring that some things are being done post-Fukushima.

    But one must wonder how many other such instances have gone undetected for years now?

    Hopefully, articles like these, along with letters from concerned citizens, will get the NRC to take its delegated responsibilities to protect the public more seriously.

  • Sean McKinnon

    David,

    Can you please provide how many flood mitigation deficiencies WERE identified, and corrected in the 70’s 80’s 90’s and 2000’s?

    Without this data the information you presented has no context. Where these three examples the only missed deficiencies out of thousands of identified and corrected ones or where there no Identified and corrected flood mitigation deficiencies?

    I think I know the answer let’s see if you will post a truthful answer to my inquiry or more spin…

  • Lynn Ray Pardo

    Thank you for your work. It’s great to hear of something positive for once. It’s important to give good news along with the horrors, lest we all just shut down from the bummer overload.
    The feeling of helplessness because of toothless gov. oversight agencies could use some bolstering by meaningful directives,e. g. Who, specifically, is/are the decision makers who would provide de-licensing when serious errors are discovered, and how do we, as concerned individuals put pressure on them to get off the dime?
    Thank you, again,
    Lynn